Anthony Kennedy, a retiring Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, has often held an independent view on politically split opinions. He has written opinions on topics including marriage equality, campaign finance, the war on terror, and freedom of speech. Given that the Republican Party has full control over the nomination of the next justice, the court will likely shift conservatively for many years to come. However, Anthony Kennedy’s legacy—his upholding of his philosophy of “liberty and dignity”—will remain in courts for years to come.
Kennedy was born in Sacramento, California on July 23, 1936, as the son of Anthony J. Kennedy, an attorney who had a strong influence in California’s legislature, and Gladys McLeod, who was active in civil affairs. His parents’ positions led Kennedy to be around important politicians such as the U.S. Chief Justice and the Governor of California when he was a boy. He graduated high school in 1954 and studied at Stanford University, where he learned constitutional law and was called a brilliant student by one of his professors. He later attended the London School of Economics and graduated with a bachelor’s in political science from Stanford in 1958, and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating cum laude in 1961.
He worked as a lobbyist in the Republican party later. Kennedy worked closely with then-Governor Ronald Reagan to draft Proposition 1, a bill that would cut California’s spending. Although the bill failed, Reagan commended Kennedy for his support and recommended then-President Gerald Ford to appoint him to the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1975, and at 38, he became the youngest federal appeals court judge.
Under President Carter, the Ninth Circuit court became increasingly liberal, and Kennedy became the head of the conservative minority. However, he was appreciated by lawyers and judges on both sides because he set aside his ideology, instead “[taking] a case-by-case approach, keeping his opinions narrow and avoiding sweeping conclusions and rhetoric.”
In 1987, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell retired. Ronald Reagan failed to nominate Robert H. Bork, whose sharply conservative views led to rejection by the Senate, and Douglas Ginsburg, who withdrew himself from consideration after admitting to using marijuana. Reagan nominated Kennedy, and after a thorough investigation of his background, the Senate confirmed him unanimously. Maureen Hoch of PBS wrote that he “virtually sailed through the confirmation process and was widely viewed by conservatives and liberals alike as balanced and fair.”
After Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016, Kennedy became the most senior Associate Justice in the Supreme Court. Now that he is retiring, his position on the court will likely be replaced by a more conservative justice. This signals a shift in the court’s ideology, from being more centrist to leaning to the right. However, many of the decisions he has made will remain precedents that can shape future decisions.
These are the five Kennedy-authored Supreme Court rulings that most changed America, according to CNN.
- Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)
Question: “Can a state require women who want an abortion to obtain informed consent, wait 24 hours, if married, notify their husbands, and, if minors, obtain parental consent, without violating their right to abortion as guaranteed by Roe v. Wade?”
The court reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, stating that “matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.” This decision reiterated how the personal rights, namely abortion rights, of women were protected.
- Roper v. Simmons (2005)
Question: “Does the execution of minors violate the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment?”
The court overruled Stanford v. Kentucky, in which the court upheld executions of offenders at or above the age of 16. It held that capital punishment for crimes committed by minors was unconstitutional. Notably, the court pointed to the overwhelming international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, and affirmed that these values would stand in America.
- Boumediene v. Bush (2008)
Question: “Should the Military Commissions Act of 2006 be interpreted to strip federal courts of jurisdiction over habeas petitions filed by foreign citizens detained at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba?”
Kennedy wrote the decision that “holding that the prisoners had a right to the writ of habeas corpus under the United States Constitution and that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was an unconstitutional suspension of that right.” This helped affirm the rights of prisoners detained in the United States.
- Citizens United v. FEC (2010)
Main Question: “Did the Supreme Court’s decision in McConnell resolve all constitutional as-applied challenges to the BCRA when it upheld the disclosure requirements of the statute as constitutional?
The Supreme Court ruled that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on the right of non-profits, corporations, labor unions, and other associations to make independent expenditures. This is one of the Supreme Court’s most unpopular decisions, as it leads to indefinite political spending for corporations and other organizations, which some say interferes with democracy.
- Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
Questions: “Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex that was legally licensed and performed in another state?”
The Court held that local officials must recognize that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. This was one of the most celebrated of the court’s recent opinions because it finally gave marriage equality to LGBT people living in America.
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